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A Christian Response to Trolling

Aug 12 2014
It’s not always easy to "love thy hateful commenter as thyself."

It’s the Internet at its worst.

It’s the Facebook commenter who blames the president for everything from crime statistics to bad TV, the sort of thing I see daily in my work as social media editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. It’s the comments on a recipe for "Amazing Rainbow Tie-Dye Number Surprise Cake" posted on a radio station website that veer away from baking into personal attacks and politics.

Writer or reader, Christian or secular, conservative or progressive, nearly anyone who spends any significant time online and on social media has encountered it: trolling. This is the universal experience of the Internet.

Trolls rear their ugly heads to remind us about their conspiracy theories, personal issues, political grandstanding and, of course, how our misguided theology has us bound for hell.

And they’re everywhere, from mainstream news websites like the Sun-Times to right here at CT. Both recently removed comments from most articles; the Sun-Times, temporarily while working on a new system to “encourage increased quality of the commentary;” CT, saying, “our efforts to carefully and thoughtfully report on controversial subjects have been swamped by comments that do not reflect the mutual respect and civil conversation we want to promote.”

“I guess most everybody feels like they’ve been trolled,” said Micky Jones, a seminarian at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies. “There’s a fine line between Twitter activism and going after somebody and engaging. It’s one of those things people get really self-righteous about.”

Trolling is an intentional disruption of online communities. That’s the classic definition, around since the late 1980s, used by The New York Times in its 2008 article “The Trolls Among Us.” It’s done to “make people angry or otherwise disturb them,” one self-described troll told me on Twitter, adding he often targets people “who needs [sic] to see how ridiculous they’re being.”

Trolling is not disagreeing. Disagreement is part of any healthy conversation -- social media and website comments at their best.

Trolling, on the other hand, ranges from online raging to harassment. The New York Times article recounts the 2006 suicide of Mitchell Henderson, a seventh-grader from Rochester, Minnesota. Afterward, trolls, who inexplicably found the whole thing funny, hacked Mitchell’s MySpace account and harassed his grieving parents with prank phone calls.

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